Why the Best Caribbean Food Comes with a Side of ‘Bad’ Service
In many of Britain’s Caribbean eateries, food rules supreme and service is secondary. “Wha yuh want?” is a totally acceptable and to-the-point way for a server to address their customers.
Illustration by Yuliya Tsoy.
My dad was a Caribbean chef so I grew up on a healthy diet of Jamaican food. I remember "helping" him in some of his kitchens, where I rubbed my eyes after handling Scotch bonnet chili peppers and screamed, the wail rising in pitch as my eyeball was positioned under a fully-opened tap of freezing water. Then there was the time I put a patty in the microwave for ten minutes when the instruction was "a lickle while."
I had no idea something so small could cause so much smoke.
In the UK, restaurants like the ones my dad worked in are a godsend for the Caribbean community. We know the work and time that goes into getting stews, saltfish, and jerk chicken to taste just right, meaning that it's sometimes easier to order in. Authenticity is key and establishments rise and fall on the strength of their ability to make it like Granny did.
Perhaps for this reason, in many Caribbean eateries, the food rules supreme and service is secondary. Beyond the usual immigrant rapport that occurs when an accent find its geographical mate, ordering is a staid affair. "Wha yuh want?" is a totally acceptable and to-the-point way for a server to address their customers.
But many of us in the UK have grown up believing that the question "What do you want?" must precede being slapped or at least being shocked over the sudden reappearance of someone killed years ago in your favourite soap opera. Staff become frustrated that certain patrons can't understand even the toned-down patois, while those same customers miss the American brand of have-a-nice-day customer service.
Consequently, no matter how delicious the food, the majority of diners in British Caribbean restaurants and takeaways tend to be Caribbean, and the service element stays the same.
"The service in our places is good," maintains Cedric Bogle, chef and owner of Daddy B's Caribbean Cuisine eatery in the Midlands. "What's bad is the way food shop staff aren't respected in this country. Back home, cooking and providing food gets the respect it deserves. Eating is vital, that's why we have Ital food [derived from the word "vital," a cooking style used in Rastafarianism]. We can seem rough to deal with if you don't know Caribbeans, but we easy people if you are easy people."
It's like my dad says: "We always have a smile on our face." His focus is on preparing and cooking the dishes properly, because that's what his target market will judge him on.
Beyond the usual immigrant rapport that occurs when an accent find its geographical mate, ordering in a Caribbean eatery is a staid affair. "Wha yuh want?" is a totally acceptable way for a server to address their customers.
But is this approach really off-putting to customers who aren't Caribbean?
"I don't think it's poor service at all. I think it's just that British people expect a different kind of service, one which focuses on the experience as opposed to 'just' taste." says Ashley, co-founder of thisiscalabash.com, a website exploring the Caribbean diaspora in the UK. "Even smaller joints could benefit from just tweaking the way they do things. Our culture in Jamaica and the way we deal with customers is perceived as rude here."
Turtle Bay, a recently launched chain of restaurants specialising in Caribbean-inspired food, has no such issues. Owned by Ajith Jayawickrema, the venture capitalist behind the Las Iguanas chain of Latin American-themed restaurants, Turtle Bay outlets feature expansive cocktail bars, fairy lights, and perhaps most importantly: attentive staff.
The problem is that the food bears little relation to the cooking or flavours of your average, independent Caribbean restaurant. When I visit, the snapper fish curry has tender flesh but no flavour, and the jerk chicken was jerked impressively in the traditional barbecued sense, but its dark colouring was not from the deep spices it should have been marinating in for hours.
"My issue with Turtle Bay restaurants is that the food is awful," says mixed-Caribbean customer Martin. "Yes it has a nice atmosphere, yes it looks lively, but you can't just paint a wall red, gold, and green and put up a mural of Bob [Marley] and be done."
Turtle Bay did not respond to MUNCHIES' request for comment.
Food may not be Turtle Bay's only issue. In September, the restaurant was criticised for an insensitive social media stunt that encouraged customers to become "Rastafied" by sharing photos of themselves in blackface. Unsurprisingly, the chain was accused of mocking Rastafarianism and the campaign quickly pulled.
While Jayawickrema stated that an "external person launched an inappropriate social media campaign on our behalf" and issued an apology "to all those people who got in touch to voice their concerns," this does little to support Turtle Bay's case as a place that Britain's Caribbean population can feel comfortable eating.
But in the restaurants themselves, the service—of course—is excellent. Turtle Bay's focus is on customer enjoyment—indeed I was asked by our waitress if I felt "transported" to the Caribbean. (The restaurant is in Birmingham and it was raining outside, so I'll leave you to guess the answer.)
It seems fairy lights and extra-smiley staff can't make up for homestyle cooking and a familiar accent.
Illustration by Yuliya Tsoy.